Jim L. Mora watches the Seahawks take on the San Francisco 49ers during his… (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)
Jim L. Mora, hired as UCLA's football coach late Friday night, said he will immerse himself in the college game in the coming weeks, though he was unsure how involved he would be in the Bruins' preparation for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
Mora, 50, became the highest-paid coach in UCLA history when he agreed to a five-year deal worth about $12 million. He expects to be at UCLA early this week, possibly as soon as Monday. He takes over a Bruins program that has not kept pace with Pac-12 Conference powers for more than a decade. UCLA has not won a conference title since 1998.
Rick Neuheisel, fired on Nov. 28, had a 21-29 record in four seasons. He was 0-4 against both USC and Oregon, the teams that finished first in the Pac-12 South and North divisions this season.
"I can't give a genuine answer right now," Mora said when asked why the Bruins have lagged behind the conference powers. But, he said, "We are going to run as fast as we can toward them and work as hard as we can to close the gap. Our goal is to close it right now."
Athletic Director Dan Guerrero said Mora was on "my short list" from the beginning, though UCLA first went after Boise State Coach Chris Petersen and also reached out to Miami Coach Al Golden. A UCLA representative also approached Washington Coach Steve Sarkisian.
Guerrero said Mora had "high energy" and was "hard-nosed." He said he was sold after speaking with players and coaches who knew Mora.
Mora, former coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks, said he would meet with the current UCLA staff this week. The Bruins begin practice Sunday for their bowl game against Illinois in San Francisco on Dec. 31. Mora said he will wait to determine whether he will have a hand in preparing for that game.
"We'll decide the best way to go forward," Mora said. "We want to make sure the players and coaches who worked so hard to win the Pac-12 South and earn a bowl bid enjoy the experience."
Mora's immediate chore will be to get acclimated to the college game. He has only one year of college coaching experience, as a graduate assistant at Washington in 1984.
But Mora said he spent more than a year researching the college game, with hopes of jumping even though he interviewed for NFL assistant jobs at Denver and Philadelphia.
The "challenges" he said he will face on the college level include the limited amount of practice time, as opposed to the NFL, where "you had your guys all day long," Mora said.
"Coaching in college and the NFL is like two different sports, especially at a place like UCLA with so much red tape to get through," said Greg Biggins, assistant recruiting editor and West regional coordinator for ESPN. But recruiting, Biggins said, is the biggest challenge for Mora.
"I don't think they're going to have a monster class, but at least if they get some things going and win a few games they'll probably have a bigger impact next year," Biggins said.
Mora said he wasn't "naive enough" to think he could become an "expert recruiter" in one day, but that he would "surround myself with people who do it and inject my personality."
Whether any of the current staff will be part of that effort is unknown. Mora said he would "get with the guys currently on staff and talk to them before we go any further. They deserve that from me."
Three current staff members are under contract for next season, though run-game coordinator Jim Mastro will join Washington State's staff after the bowl game. Offensive coordinator Mike Johnson will get $390,000 and defensive coordinator Joe Tresey $250,000 in 2012. The $235,000 owed Mastro probably will be pro-rated after he signs with Washington State.
Mora said he is not required to keep any current assistant coaches.
Guerrero said he would seek a waiver from the NCAA to allow UCLA to exceed the number of coaches on staff through its bowl game. Ohio State was granted such a waiver this week.
Times staff writer Gary Klein contributed to this report.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Mora's NFL head coaching career
*--* YEAR TEAM REC RESULT 2004 Atlanta 11-5 First in NFC South, lost in NFC final 2005 Atlanta 8-8 Third in NFC South 2006 Atlanta 7-9 Third in NFC South 2009 Seattle 5-11 Third in NFC West *--*